A Story of Loyalty and Disloyalty
"The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an extremely large number of animals," the Bible relates in this week’s portion (1). "And they saw that the Ya’zer and Gilead areas were good for livestock. The descendants of Gad and Reuben came and presented the following petition to Moses… ‘If we have found favor in your eyes, may this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.'"
Moses becomes extremely upset. He gives them a fiery and dramatic sermon that lasts ten complete verses, a pretty long stretch in biblical narrative. "Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?" Moses thunders. “Why do you dissuade the heart of the children of Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given them”?
Forty years earlier, he reminds them, the people of Israel had been poised to enter the land of Canaan. But following a negative report by the spies who were sent to scout the land, the entire nation spurned the land promised to their ancestors as the eternal heritage of Israel. G-d decreed that they remain in the desert for forty years, until that entire generation died out and a new generation prepared to accept the gift and challenge of the Promised Land. And now, said Moses to the Reubenites and the Gadites, you are repeating the sin of the Spies -- a sin which condemned an entire generation and stopped Jewish history in its tracks for forty years. Like your parents before you, you are about to dissuade the heart of your brethren from entering the land. "You will destroy this entire nation," Moses concludes his passionate rebuke.
The Reubenites and Gadites accept Moses’ words with grace. In response, they clarify their original position. Far from seeking to free themselves from the impending wars for the Land, they were fully prepared to send their troops into the Land and take a leading role in the battles until they were successfully concluded. Only then would they return to the lands allotted to them in the east. "We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his Inheritance," they pledge.
Moses consents to their plea. He changes his tone and grants them the territories they requested.
First, since their intentions it seems, were really pure (they never had in mind to abandon their brethren going to war), how did Moses misread them so profoundly and grow so furious with them? Why did Moses not first inquire what their intentions were before coming down so hard on them?
Second, Moses’ words focused on the point that it was unacceptable that one segment of Jewry isolates from the rest of the nation, shirking responsibility and escaping the fate of their brethren. But what about the seemingly more important point: G-d wanted the Jews to settle the land at the west of the Jordan! These people decided that they wish to remain in the Trans-Jordan, but who gave these two tribes the right to redefine the plan and choose the East instead of the West? Why did Moses consent to their request?
The Bible gives us no hint. There is no way of knowing. We are left in the dark until Moses is about to leave the world.
In the last section of Deuteronomy, just moments before his passing, Moses speaks to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. His words to the tribe of Gad must be heeded to carefully (2):
“He chose the first portion , for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden.”
The cry of Gad and Reuben “Do not take us across the Jordan,” was a plea not to separate them from Moses (3). If Moses is not destined to cross the river, they too did not wish to cross it (4). These were no mere farmers worrying about real-estate. These were souls so deeply attached to their Rebbe who were determined to spend their lives near the resting place of Moses (5).
Moses, in his intuition, felt that what they were expressing to him did not capture the entire story. Moses sensed that their words eclipsed a deeper truth. He thus suspected them in contriving a scheme designed to escape responsibility. Hence, he rebuked them severely.
Yet surprisingly, they accepted Moses’ words in grace. The narrative makes it clear that they were not upset by the false accusations Moses thrust upon them. Why not?
Because they knew that they were not being straightforward. Above all, this was not about them and their ego; it was about their selfless love and dedication to Moses. His fury did not alienate them, it merely demonstrated once again the genuine leader Moses was and strengthened their resolve to remain in his proximity for eternity.
Moses agreed to fulfill their request. He could not tear himself away from the people he dedicated his life to. If his people reciprocated the love he showered upon them, he would not be the one to expel them from his midst. And at the last moments before his death, he extols Gad for this deeply loving choice (6).
Notwithstanding the noble and deeply moving intentions of Gad and Reuben, their choice is considered “hasty” and immature. It was emotionally compelling, but spiritually short sighted.
Yes, Gad and Reuben could not abandon Moses’ burial place. They were determined to remain in the proximity of Moses’ body. For this the Torah relates their story in detail, and they are recalled with great fondness. Yet, notwithstanding their powerful emotions of love, they made an error. They failed to realize that Moses’ true presence would not remain interred in the earth of the plains of Moab (9). Moses would continue to live on in his vision, in his ideas, in his teachings, and in the desciples who continued his vision and ideals. Moses' vision was that the Jewish people should fulfill their G-d given mandate to enter the Land of Canaan, settle it and transform it into a Holy Land, redefining the physical landscape of the soil of Canaan as an abode for G-dliness.
Moses was never comprised of simple matter so that his identity would be defined merely in terms of his physical body (10). Moses’ life embodied a truth, a vision, a way of looking at the world and understanding the objective of man's journey on this earth. As long as that truth would live in the hearts of people dedicated to Moses’ dream of transforming the earthy land of Canaan into a divine home, Moses would remain alive (11).
1) Numbers chapter 32. All the subsequent quotes are from this chapter.
2) Deuteronomy 33:21.
3) In a moving Chassidic interpretation, the great master Rabbi Simcha Bunam if Peshiscah found a hint to this idea in the biblical narrative. The Hebrew worlds, “The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an extremely large number of animals,” can also be translated as “The descendants of Reuben and the children of Gad possessed an enormous connection to their Rebbe (spiritual master). “Miknah Rav,” they had a deep acquisition in their Rav, in their Rebbe (quoted in Sefas Emes, Shem Mishmuel and Pardas Yosef Parshas Matos)
4) It is even possible to suggest a more daring thought (see Pardas Yosef ibid.): By settling in the East, they hoped to confer on those territories the status of the “Land of Israel.” This would mean that Moses had retroactively entered the Holy Land, for the East has become part of “Eretz Israel.” Now, once Moses entered part of the land, perhaps G-d would allow him to cross the Jordan and enter it fully. Moses would not have to die.
5) This might explain another enigma. Among Jacob’s twelve sons, Gad was the seventh, while Reuben was the oldest. Yet in this entire narrative concerning these two tribes, the children of Gad are mentioned first. The reason may be because Gad felt a deeper connection with Moses, as indicated in Moses’ words in Deuteronomy.
6) Why was it the members of Gad and Reuben, among all other Jews, who were determined to remain near Moses? One answer is presented in Shem Mishmuel Matos who finds that these tribes uniquely reflected the characteristics of Moses.
8) Bamidbar Rabah 22:7-9.
9) This may be the deeper meaning in the words of the Midrash that these tribes cherished material possessions over souls and people. On a deeper level it may indicate that Gad and Reuben appreciated Moses’ physical presence more than his spiritual identity. The former would die; the latter endures in the books and souls of his pupils, for eternity.
A similar idea, albeit from a different angle, is discussed in Shem Mishmuel ibid. who explains the unique relationship of these tribes with Moses’ body.
10) See Tanya Igeres Hakodesh sections 27-28.
11) See Talmud Soteh 13b; Taanis 5b; Berochos 18a.